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Washington’s COVID Failures Coming into Perspective and Rx Price Debate

President at Paragon Health Institute
Brian Blase, Ph.D., is the President of Paragon Health Institute. Brian was Special Assistant to the President for Economic Policy at the White House’s National Economic Council (NEC) from 2017-2019, where he coordinated the development and execution of numerous health policies and advised the President, NEC director, and senior officials. After leaving the White House, Brian founded Blase Policy Strategies and serves as its CEO.

Today’s newsletter covers lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic, featuring work by Paragon advisors, and adds perspective to the congressional debate on drug prices from last week. 
10 Biggest COVID Mistakes
It’s vital that there is a proper evaluation of the government’s COVID-19 response, primarily so policymakers learn from the many significant mistakes around the failure to rationally weigh the benefits and costs of policies and prioritizing politics over science and common sense. On March 16, in a Fox News piece, Paragon public advisor Marty Makary reflected on the ten biggest mistakes made by the government’s public health establishment during the pandemic. He listed the following: 

1. Theory of surface transmission of COVID
2. No hospital visitation policies
3. Closing schools
4. Ignoring the benefit of natural immunity
5. Downplaying therapeutics
6. Not a greater spacing out of vaccine doses 
7. Cloth masks
8. Promising no vaccine mandates and then breaking that promise
9. Downplaying the possibility of a lab leak, and  
10. Emphasizing boosters for young people.  

“The American people, and children in particular, deserve an apology,” wrote Makary. “Now studies are revealing the catastrophic harm to a generation of children – significant motor and cognitive declines and a mental health crisis. In Baltimore, many kids never logged on to virtual learning and were never seen in class again.” 
On vaccines, Makary pointed out that “a study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that the mortality risk of an unboosted person under age 30 was zero. You can’t lower a risk of zero any further with a booster.”
According to Makary, the prohibition on hospital visitation was a “barbaric policy” and “a human rights violation,” with the medical establishment “abandoning their duty to respect the dignity of human life.” 
CDC’s Problems
Paragon public advisor Carl Schramm took direct aim at the CDC’s loss of credibility, mismanagement, and communication failures, writing in The Hill on March 8th.

On Jan. 27, the GAO [Government Accountability Office] delivered a rare “high risk” rating to the Department of Health and Human Services, specifically citing the CDC’s poor data management and ineffective messaging. These findings added fuel to congressional proposals to set up an independent COVID commission to examine the CDC’s performance.

The American public are increasingly frustrated with the government’s pandemic response. According to Schramm, “Only 32 percent of respondents in an August Gallup poll said they believed the CDC was communicating a clear path to prevent COVID infection. Pew data from January showed 60 percent of respondents found CDC recommendations confusing.
Given CDC’s profound failures, Schramm sensibly concluded that it is not wise to double its budget, increasing it by $22 billion, as President Biden has proposed. 
Against evidence, CDC is perpetuating lockdown-era policies. In the New York Post, Dr. Joel Zinberg, the director of Paragon’s public health and American well-being initiative, wrote about the “CDC’s silly stalling on flight masks.” According to Dr. Zinberg, there is no compelling evidence for a continued mask mandate for air travel and CDC should stop promulgating “increasingly irrational restrictions.” 

One government success: Operation Warp Speed 
Some of the government’s COVID-related responses were effective, most notably Operation Warp Speed (OWS). Paragon public advisor Paul Mango was a top advisor to then-Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and was intimately involved with OWS. Paul’s book on the experience, Warp Speed, was released digitally this week. Warp Speed has historical value but also serves as a case study in effective governance and how to structure public-private partnerships.  
Here is one key excerpt:

The federal government’s role in Operation Warp Speed reflected a philosophical belief that it should do only what the private sector cannot do better.  We were exquisitely sensitive to the concept of never letting our reach exceed our grasp.  There were no authoritarian impulses on the team, and … there was an inveterate belief in the power of the private sector.  Therefore, with few exceptions, such as the Veterans’ Administration and the Department of Defense, no federal employee was directly involved in manufacturing, packaging, shipping, or injecting a single dose of any Warp Speed COVID vaccine.

Inflation and Rx Prices
Finally, Congress has continued to focus on drug prices with some members trying to associate drug prices with overall inflation as demonstrated by the title of last week’s Senate Finance Committee hearing—Prescription Drug Price Inflation: An Urgent Need to Lower Drug Prices in Medicare. While Americans are rightly worried about how high inflation is and how their incomes now purchase fewer goods and services, associating inflation with prescription drug prices is a false narrative. As discussed by Dr. Joel Zinberg in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, drug prices—as measured by the Bureau of Labor Statistic’s consumer price index-Rx—have been about flat for the past several years. 

While drug prices are not driving inflation, expanded Affordable Care Act (ACA) subsidies and higher federal Medicaid spending would truly exacerbate inflation and create a host of other problems. Policymakers should focus on reforms that will lower prices and reduce wasteful government health spending, rather than pour fuel on the inflation fire. 

Brian Blase
Paragon Health Institute

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